Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Reviewing the Literature
Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Reviewing the Literature
CHAPTER TWO: THE STAR TREK UNIVERSE (part one)
“We are never simply consumers of popular cultural texts, but in and through our very ‘reading’ of them we actively (re)create them”
The first section of this chapter will discuss broad themes of the Star Trek universe spanning the original series and The Next Generation. This survey is not meant to be an exhaustive one, that would be impossible for a project of this size, but I do want to touch on several themes and conventions I have noticed in my own watching and re-watching of the series’ in question. The second section of the chapter is dedicated to an analysis of a specific storyline that begins on The Next Generation and is developed more fully on Deep Space Nine. Instead of overarching themes, in this section I have chosen to zoom in on two specific episodes to examine closely: TNG’s “Ensign Ro” and DS9’s “Duet.” It is my hope that this combination of the broad and the specific will give even the fan-scholar a unique perspective on the potential, and on the successes and failures, of the Star Trek universe as a social justice project.
I feel it is also important to reiterate here what I mean by “social justice.” As I use it here, “social justice” means “a project in pursuit of positive social/cultural change.” This is similar to Cymene Howe’s “televisionary activism,” defined as: “a mediated form of social justice messaging that utilizes the pervasive, popular platform of television to create new ‘visions’ of social transformation to shape and change, in the words of advocates, ‘culture’”
(Howe 54). This is a very broad definition and includes
within it work from many, sometimes contradictory, political philosophies. For example, Star Trek, which is an assimilationist and US-centric project. Social justice can be framed in a radical or
liberal way, though it’s rootedness in change
precludes it from being traditionally conservative. This definition does not mean, however, that the franchise in question never reinforces
what I view as harmful social structures in its pursuit of what it sees/projects
as “change.” They do.
I want to be very clear here. I love Star Trek. Next Generation, Voyager and more recently Deep Space Nine have been incredibly important shows to me on a personal, intellectual and political level. But these shows are not perfect. Even the elements I label as “positive” are often a mixture of elements I consider both “good” and “bad” in pursuit of the social change I would like to see. There is no purity in this analysis. That is because, as Avery Gordon reminds us: “life is complicated” (Gordon 3). I take that axiom just as seriously as she; it is not just “a banal expression of the obvious, but…a profound theoretical statement” (3). I refuse to shun complication in pursuit of a more “tidy” theory-making, or in the face of the possibility of confusion. Confusion and complication can be useful tools, they can frustrate, but they can also bring a deeper understanding once trudged through. I also reject purposeful obfuscation, and do not aim to purposefully frustrate my readers; I ask only that you keep in mind that there are always multiple layers to the topics I discuss below.
First, I look at the transition from the rudimentary 1960s identity politics representational practice on original Star Trek to the neoliberal “multicultural” politics and casting decisions of Star Trek: The Next Generation. While it is easy to simply say both practices are flawed, I want to look more deeply at what each approach (both of them rooted in liberal-humanism) challenges and reifies. Second, I analyze the use of Cardassians and Bajorans on Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as an allegory for the colonial conflict occurring in Palestine/Israel. This analysis serves two main purposes: first, to exemplify how stories can be utilized to call attention to gaps in hegemonic knowledge, and second, to point to the way stories can provide a forum for discussions that are shut down in the real world. Finally, the over-arching argument I am building is that these works matter because before something can be done, it must first be imagined. And the spaces of our imaginings show us (the viewers and imaginers) the futures that we are collectively working to build (and social justice activists where we might, or must, intervene). My work here is an effort to critically analyze the imaginings of my chosen texts, to deconstruct some of their messages and to ask how fan-scholar-activists might use those messages towards ever-better social justice work.
Section One: Race Matters
Within popular discourse, racial justice is an issue that Star Trek is said to be successful with from the outset of the original series (or: TOS). At the very least, the rhetoric most often used talks about TOS as "groundbreaking.” For example, moments like the legendary kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura are celebrated as “ground-breaking statement[s] on racial relations”
(Christian) and a Google search for “Star Trek” and “groundbreaking” results in 9.5 million hits. Star Trek has earned this reputation because people of various ethnicities (both myriad white ethnicities and people of color) worked in the command center (called “the bridge”) of a starship (the USS Enterprise) hundreds of years in the future, with total equality. In addition, that current day oppressions like racism, sexism, and poverty had all been eliminated on Earth in this future-universe is repeatedly and explicitly expressed within the series’. In short, the image held up of Trek is one of a diverse bridge crew going about their work together on equal terms. However, the real world time of the original Star Trek was 1966, and so this message was far more idyllic than the way in which the series actually played out: with characters representing marginalized communities receiving only bit parts.
Yet even this image, imperfect as it was and without any real character development for the marginalized crew members, was proved conceptually powerful in the social imagination. It was even powerful enough that when Nichelle Nichols (who played Lt. Uhura) told “her greatest fan,” Dr. Martin Luther King, that she was ready to quit he said to her “images are so important…you cannot [leave the show]…you have the first non-stereotypical role in television, what we see is how we are supposed to be. For the first time the world sees us as we are supposed to be seen, as qualified, beautiful, intelligent people”
(Nichols, Nichelle Nichols Remembers MLK, Star Trek's Biggest Fan). When she related this story to Gene Roddenberry and agreed to stay on the series "he sat there and looked at me and said, 'God bless Dr. Martin Luther King. Somebody does understand me’” (Huff). Even if the part was hardly more than crumbs, the act of representing an African woman on the bridge of the Starfleet flagship week after week was a testament to the survival of Africans and people of the African diaspora into the 23rd century. But I want to pause here to ask, are representations like this one, ground-breaking, if flawed, really so important?
Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the idea of: "act as if." In the independent film Boiler Room Ben Affleck's character gives a speech to the new recruits of an investment firm wherein he attempts to create confidence in the group by telling them to "act as if." In essence, he tells them that through pretending to be what they want to be, the pretense will eventually become reality. Dorian Corey puts it another way in the iconic Paris is Burning: "in a ball room you can be anything you want. You're not really an executive, but you're looking like an executive. And therefore you are showing the straight world that 'I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity I could be one, because I can look like one.'" One might also see hints of Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity in these concepts: that through repetitious actions what is acted becomes “true” for the one performing the act and for those who observe it
(Gender Trouble). In other words: the representation of something brings the idea being represented into "the real" in the minds of those who see it and perform it.
That many millions of people have seen Nyota Uhura and Hikaru Sulu sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise plants the idea in their minds that African- and Asian-American people are in fact equal to White people and are fully capable of serving alongside them in important capacities. Such an idea undermines important ideologies of racism that rely on an internalized belief of Asian and black people as Other and "less-than" White people. This is why Dr. King did not want Nichelle Nichols to give up her role as Lieutenant Uhura. The rub, of course, is that while the existence of Uhura and Sulu on the bridge undermined some racist ideologies, the fact that they were not fleshed-out characters also served to reify their Otherness and “less-than” status to the White characters. So, while it was certainly groundbreaking that Uhura was the first non-stereotyped Black woman on USian television, there was a long way to go before she was more than a token.
In his writing and interviews, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was always explicit that the civil rights of oppressed communities were part of his thinking in considering how to structure and develop the Star Trek universe, and in thinking about what stories he wanted to tell through that universe
(Roddenberry and Whitfield). In addition, the straightforward identity politics of TOS make sense not only because Star Trek was a rudimentary "first attempt" at "social justice television" in such a popular medium, but also in considering the time period in which Star Trek was launched. The mid-to-late 1960s was a time when popular racial discourses were shifting in large part because of the activism of the Black Civil Rights Movement, when widespread conversations were being had about segregation, and the larger issue of white supremacy that had dominated kyriarchal thought in the United States for hundreds of years.
Ideas about ethnic nationalism were also disseminating into the mainstream USian popular imagination: Malcolm X had only recently been killed (1965), the founding of the Black Panther Party occurred in the same year as Star Trek's debut (1966), and the formation of the Brown Berets (1967) and American Indian Movement (1968) was not far behind. This was the perfect time to begin to imagine what a world post-racism might look like, what humanity might achieve if we set aside the racist, sexist and classist ideologies that have defined USian kyriarchy since the first colonists arrived on Turtle Island from England (and other European empires) over 500 years ago. In this way, Star Trek served both as a space of trying to imagine (and through that imagining, actively building) a more just future, and, as similarly observed by Lincoln Geraghty: as a space of addressing, through story, the problems facing “contemporary American reality” and public discourse of the time
(Austin and Wright 131).
"Hailing Frequencies Open, Sir"
“Strange how a twenty-third century space opera could be so mired in antiquated hang-ups”
– Nichelle Nichols (Bernardi 38)
Even as we think about Star Trek as the first popular imagining of a post-racism future, those imagining this future still lived in the 1960s, and it showed. For example, the impact of ethnic nationalist ideology, post-colonial thought and Garveyism
(G.) can be found in Uhura's characterization as an African woman. Not African-American, but African. Her indigenous language is Swahili (Memory Alpha) and her nation of origin is "The United States of Africa" (Memory Alpha). The creation of a "United States of Africa" in the Star Trek universe is a complicated concept that at once flattens the ethnic and national diversity of Africa as well as constructs African people as equal and equivalent to (White) people of the United States of America.
While possibly gesturing towards Black American intellectuals that have advocated for an African state for African-American people, this concept also flattens Africa in that it feeds into the (still) prevailing USian belief that Africa is a place of one people, that "Africans" are a coherent group, not a collection of diverse cultures, religious traditions and ethnic backgrounds linked together in some cases only by virtue of the landmass on which they make their homes. Similarly, the rhetorical parallel of the "United States of Africa" to the "United States of America" is an assimilationist and U.S. exceptionalist move that assumes the superiority of the United States government model and superimposes it on a future African continent. Africans are shown to be equal to "us" by having become "like us." Such an assimilationist model is evident throughout the Star Trek franchise, as we will return to again.
The way in which the character Uhura is written also demonstrates successes and failures in the treatment of women in the original Star Trek. Her now iconic short skirt is a vivid reminder of sex and gender difference on the Enterprise Bridge, as has been criticized by many a feminist author before me
(Ginn). Such an outfit is significantly less utilitarian than the costumes sported by the men on the crew,  and works to sexualize Uhura in a way not otherwise shared by her male counterparts. When her character is introduced, lip service is given to her remarkable ability with languages, yet throughout the three season’s worth of episodes she largely acts only as a secretary or switchboard girl. The real development of the Uhura (and Sulu) character was stymied over and over by editors and producers who whittled their roles down to almost nothing (Nichols, Beyond Uhura). So, while the character Nyota Uhura was certainly ground-breaking, breaking the ground was all the producers of Star Trek allowed her (and Gene Roddenberry) to do. Actually digging out a space for a complicated and powerful character never really materialized, even as she was given more time on screen and plot involvement in the Star Trek films. Still, the impact of even this tokenistic representation can probably not be overstated. In the words of Whoopi Goldberg to her family: "I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain't no maid!" (Beck). Indeed, Lt. Uhura is credited as the first Black actress whose character was not relegated to so-called menial labor (in other words a maid or mammy type role) (Nichols, Beyond Uhura).
Finally, it would be remiss to not address the original Star Trek’s glass ceiling. Indeed, Uhura is the only woman to serve as a part of the Bridge crew, with Nurse Chapel assigned, out of sight, in the infirmary. But, on “the first pilot, the script called for a character by the name of ‘Number One,’ the female first officer”
(Snyder). Described as “a strong, cool, almost emotionless character” she was written to be an extremely knowledgeable and capable officer (Asherman) that reads as quite similar to eventual first officer Spock. However, the network demanded she be cut, claiming “the audience would not be able to identify with a woman in such a powerful authority position on board a starship” (Snyder). The woman meant to play this character, Majel Barrett, eventually went on to play Nurse Chapel instead.
This refusal of the character “Number One” demonstrates some of the structural constraints experienced by Gene Roddenberry in his work, a concern that must always haunt the social-justice minded television writer. As useful as television is as a popular medium for stories that interrupt mainstream discourse, it should not be forgotten that those stories must always make it past, or meet with the approval of, the network producing the show in question, and thus they are constrained by the needs of businesses concerned primarily with making money from advertisers and serving their own interests. This reminder is not meant to discourage the potential social justice-minded television writer or fan, but to contextualize the critical discussions of this project and “televisionary” work more generally.
Aesthetics of Whiteness
Trek does not challenge the myth of a white race; it perpetuates it by defining "human" as the center of the universe, the ideal galactic species with the moral voice to press forward and expand, and white as the rightful and heroic leaders of the human race
(Prof. Daniel Bernardi on Star Trek and Race)
As a social justice project, the original Star Trek's visual aesthetic upholds a serious contradiction; that is, a very purposeful and strategic representation of various ethnicities compose the bridge crew (both white and of color)...while the extras that comprise the rest of this universe are almost uniformly White. In this analysis I am heavily indebted to the work of Whiteness Studies scholars such as Noel Ignatiev who have pointed to the constructedness of Whiteness. For instance, in How the Irish Became White, Ignatiev charts the ways in which white-supremacist culture demanded Irish assimilation to ideologies of Whiteness (such as anti-Black racism) to gain acceptance into mainstream USian culture and social structures. A similar dynamic can be seen on the original Trek wherein those who are or “pass” for Anglo exist at the top of the hierarchy, with Other ethnically white (or white women) crew existing on the second tier of importance/airtime (see: Scotty, Nurse Chapel and eventually Checkov) and people of color occupying the bottom tier, fewest lines, character involvement etc. (see: Uhura and Sulu). And this dynamic/hierarchy exists on a backdrop of blinding Whiteness.
In keeping with the dominant power of Whiteness in USian kyriarchy, the background of the early Star Trek episodes demonstrates an overall aesthetic choice of tall, muscular, blonde men playing the “extras,” and thereby populating the majority of a universe wherein (supposedly) racism, sexism, classism, etc. has been erased. Never mind that, if those structural ideologies really had become a thing of the past, white people would be severely outnumbered in general and that such paragons of Whiteness would be really quite rare (blonde hair and blue eyes being recessive genetic traits). But, in keeping with USian kyriarchy, Whiteness maintains its over-representation. This is one more example of what Daniel Bernardi has called the “paradox of Star Trek,” an explicitly liberal-humanist social justice project that nonetheless “supports a universe where whites are morally, politically, and innately superior”
(68). Or, as I would put it: where Whiteness, and assimilation/aspiration to it, is represented as “morally, politically, and innately superior.”
This overall aesthetic corresponds with the choice of three W/white men as the lead characters of the show. While one of these lead characters is an alien (Lieutenant Commander Spock) his “Otherness” (as alien) is not “Other” to the ideologies of Whiteness that kyriarchal USian culture values and demands. Indeed, Vulcans base their lives and culture purely on “logic,” “rationality” and “reason”; traits that anthropologists of the 19th century ascribed solely to "the white race" and which Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke held up as virtues to be pursued. Further, Star Trek narrative makes clear that Vulcan life is structured this way because of their otherwise extremely volatile nature. It is said at numerous times that without their logic-based philosophy Vulcans were “savage,” again recalling the language of 19th century anthropology and pseudo-sciences alleged to analyze racial difference. Thus Spock’s alien-Otherness is subdued through his “race’s” allegiance to codes of Whiteness, making him both “alien” but also comforting and familiar to hegemonic narratives
Along similar lines, the human characters are both "from the Heartland," specifically, Iowa (Captain Kirk) and Mississippi (Doctor McCoy), and thus the epitome of "All-American boys." Given the time and place of Star Trek’s creation it is perhaps easy to take this assignment for granted. Even today the White male is generally understood to be the "universal subject" and when criticized for a lack of diversity television producers enjoy reminding us that other casting is considered a gamble as to whether a "mainstream" (read: white) audience will “relate” to the series. We can see this thinking in operation even in the casting of these white men: Nimoy’s designation as the always logical Vulcan and Shatner’s assignment as a red-blooded Iowan farmer’s son. While both actors are Jewish, this was not a written into their characters. Their “White-washed” casting demonstrates a compensation for their not-quite-acceptable-white-ethnic-Otherness of being Jewish. Significantly, the slightly more “ethnic” looking Nimoy is assigned the role of alien, while the “passing” Shatner retains the role of Captain: yet another enactment/reinforcement of the ideology/hierarchy Whiteness.
The resulting look of common bridge shots in the original series are of very few people of color in a sea of Whiteness. On the one hand, this made those two people of color all the more noticeable, providing a rupture in the White monotony of so much of science fiction and USian television of the time. But as with all such tokenistic representations this provided only a surface-level rupture. Accordingly, when the franchise was re-envisioned for Star Trek: The Next Generation this aesthetic was adapted to the more "multicultural" progressivism of the time and the backdrop on which the main characters played became less starkly White. What is particularly interesting about this changing aesthetic, however, is the way in which Whiteness continued to assert itself as a powerful force despite the changes.
In fact, the bridge crew of the Enterprise-D is even more w/White than that of the original Enterprise. It is comprised of not only less people of color, but less white ethnicities as well. This is contrasted with the fact that within the diegetic universe this crew is more diverse than the first: including three alien species, an android and three humans (one of whom is disabled), with more representations of women as well. Similarly, while the character of Captain Jean Luc Picard is indeed (in theory) a shift from the "All American" Kirk, his diegetic French-ness is virtually erased by actor Patrick Stewart's obvious Englishness. Thus, this diegetic diversity allows for non-diegetic non-diversity. Aliens come to stand in for human representations of Otherness. As traced by Bernardi and others, this is not a phenomenon unique to Star Trek
(63), but importantly, the original series displayed some awareness of the importance of a diverse cast in the central characters (even as it often tokenized them) that TNG seems to have forgotten entirely. We will talk more about the importance of centralized-characters in the next chapter, but for now sufficed to say the reassertion of Whiteness on the TNG crew in this way is a significant step away from the potentially transformative work attempted on the original series.
In accent, personality traits and demeanor, Picard is the consummate stately Englishman. He adheres strictly to the rules of the Federation, displays rationality at all times, and shows a penchant for authoritative politeness. One of his trademarks, his drink of choice, also betrays this English overlay: "Tea, Earl Grey, hot!" Not café au lait, or wine with dinner, which would be signifiers of French-ness to a USian audience. The few times during the series when Picard's French-ness is required for the storyline it reads as an awkward and forced overlay. This awkwardness is even written into the storyline, somewhat, with Picard having a contested relationship with his father and brother. This storyline paints these French relatives as “stuck in the past” and “traditional,” increasing Picard’s aura of modernity and in some ways marking his non-diegetic Englishness as even more appropriate (given the hegemonic narratives linking Englishness and modernity contrasted with Frenchness and stubborn traditionalism).
All of these narratives, and Stewart’s stately acting style, combine to create a character whose fatherly all-knowing aura makes sense within USian hegemony and allows him to be read as an authoritative figure, as someone the viewing audience can trust. Given all of this, the role of Picard is certainly not much of a challenge to USian hegemony, only a charming slight-divergence from typical USian portrayals of normative masculinity. Once again, the assimilationist tendencies of the original Star Trek are maintained in Next Generation: characters are held up as "good" when they fit the model of hegemonic morality and behavior. Indeed, even in a century when poverty and crime has allegedly been eliminated on Earth, Starfleet still follows a military code that requires subordinating oneself to the judgment of commanding officers, instead of, for instance, running the Enterprise-D by consensus or some other more democratic manner.
This shift in representation also mirrors the politics of the time. Like the original Trek, Next Generation was born into a time of significant change in the way society thought about core principles like race and economics. Reaganomics (and Thatcherism) was in full swing by 1988 when TNG debuted, the ideological right was reinvigorated and neoliberal thought was being popularized
(Duggan 10). Rhetoric of "personal responsibility" is one of the catch phrases of this ideology, rhetoric that places the blame for poverty on the poor. This rhetoric, along with “tough on crime” initiatives (like the "war on drugs") and "welfare reform" criminalized the poor, thus shifting the eye of society from structures of inequality to individuals for both blame and uplift and obscuring the power of institutions over individual’s lives (Duggan 10-11). This is not to say that there had never before been a concept of individualism inherent to the Star Trek universe, only to suggest that the way in which people thought about and interpreted that individualism was undergoing a significant shift at the time of TNG’s creation.
Within this context we find a largely White cast and a British archetype as the lead in a universe that is more diegetically diverse than that imagined twenty years earlier. In addition, the extras in the background are no longer the paragons of Whiteness they once were. The future thus paradoxically does and doesn’t look more White in this re-imagining of Trek. The configuration of Whiteness as front and center, with people of color in the background, sends the message that people of color do at least exist beyond a few token representations in this future, but they remain on the periphery. Geordi La Forge sits on the margins of the bridge at the beginning of the season, before being transferred out of sight to Engineering, and Worf (doubly Othered as an alien who is obviously played by a Black actor) stands at the back of the bridge in what often comes across as the role of a white woman’s personal bodyguard.
Inasmuch as there seems to be, overall, more spaces/roles available for people of color on this Enterprise, it is disturbing that they almost all exist in the background of the camera’s gaze, and that characters of color still do not largely exist at the center of what is important to the stories told. Quite plainly, these characters don’t seem to “matter” very much, except to follow where Whiteness (embodied in Captain Picard and Commander Riker) leads. Thus, this adjustment to a less "identity politics" and more "neoliberal multicultural" cast and crew proves to be just as heartening in its potential but troubling in its execution as its predecessor was
(Bernardi). We will see in Chapter Three that other sci-fi TV writers (Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who) have been more successful in utilizing a “neoliberal multicultural” framework in ways that don’t reinforce kyriarchy quite so dramatically, however, for the moment let us turn to a less general analysis of the political work of Next Generation’s narratives and discourse, and to a more specific example of the spaces stories can open up.
 For example: Lieutenant Uhura is generally little more than a secretary, Lieutenant Sulu a model minority stereotype and Nurse Chapel a helpless and love-blinded model of idealized femininity.
 While in The Original Series neither Sulu, nor Uhura, had first names, the names used here have become canon through their use in Star Trek themed novels, fan fiction and finally in the most recent Star Trek incarnation, the film directed by J.J. Abrams, released in 2009.
 One Indigenous name for “North America,” used particularly by the Iroquois Confederacy.
 Interestingly, this short skirt outfit returned briefly on Star Trek: The Next Generation and in the very first episode can be seen being worn by both women and men. Apparently this costuming did not sit well with someone at the network because the outfits are never again seen on men, and eventually vanish altogether.
 This is not to argue that the men of Star Trek are not sexualized through their presentation. William Shatner as Captain Kirk in particular was often shown shirtless in a manner similar to the sexual objectification observed here. The difference, of course, was that this state of dress was not his uniform.
 I capitalize "white" here to indicate not just that their skin color and phenotype match what is considered in the United States to indicate a white racial grouping (for which I use the lower-case “white”), but also to indicate that they represent an archetypal white, the whitest of the white, as in those who are held up as the ideal in a white supremacist hierarchy (i.e.: Anglo).
 To clarify what I mean here: TOS had three hegemonic white men as its main characters (Kirk, Spock, McCoy), as does TNG (Picard, Riker, Data) however the main supporting cast was pulled from communities of color and white ethnic communities (Sulu was “Asian,” Uhura was “African,” Scotty was Scottish and Checkov was Russian) with a more normative white woman in the Infirmary (Nurse Chapel). In contrast on TNG the main supporting cast is either Black (La Forge, Worf) or White (Dr. Crusher, Wesley Crusher, Yar and Troi). One could argue Troi might be counted as an Other white ethnicity (the actress playing her, Marina Sirtis, is Greek-British), however she is not represented in a way that calls attention to her white ethnicity in the way Checkov and Scotty were, instead her ethnic Otherness is accounted for by her being half-human and half-Betazoid. Even allowing for her inclusion as representing a white ethnicity, the representational diversity of TNG is severely curtailed in comparison to TOS.
 How could he not be when he is played by none other than a Royal Shakespeare Company trained actor?
 As pointed to earlier, the ethnicities presented on the original Trek were quite explicit and made obvious by the writers producers (i.e. a very straight-forward “identity politics” in action) while Otherness on TNG is often subsumed under narratives of Alien-otherness, such as Troi’s half-Betazoid ancestry rationalizing her “exotic” beauty and allure, instead of calling any attention to her white ethnic status as both British and Greek, this is in line with a neoliberal multicultural perspective that promotes “color-blindness” as the epitome of racial justice – an ideology that has been made clear actually undergirds racism.