Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stories Matter: On Star Trek, Part 1

So, I haven't been around much but I have been writing a lot.  So I'm going to share with you some of what I've been doing.  This is a selection from my second (but not yet completed) draft of chapter two of my thesis.  In all likelihood I will also post the final draft of this project in some form, so expect that in May!  In the meantime, the second half of this draft will pop up soon, as well.  File under: "Stuff whatsername Is Working on For School".

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 a specific storyline that begins on The Next Generation and is developed more fully on Deep Space Nine.  Instead of overarching themes, I have chosen 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 outline here what I mean by “social justice.”  As I use it here, “social justice” means “a project in pursuit of positive social change.”  This is a very broad definition and includes within it work that I might not pursue myself, an observation particularly true of Star Trek which is at its heart an assimilationist and US-centric project.  To define Star Trek (and in the later chapter Doctor Who circa 2005) as a social justice project is to refer to the intent of the creator as well as the perceived possible outcomes of the work.  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 this franchise never reinforces what I view as harmful social structures in its pursuit of “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 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.

Section One: Race Matters

In popular discourse, race is an issue that Star Trek “got right” from the outset of the original series (from here shortened to TOS).  Or, at the very least, the rhetoric most often used talks about TOS as "ground breaking."  People of various ethnicities (both white and 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.  That things like racism, sexism, and poverty had all been eliminated on Earth in this in-universe time period is explicitly expressed within the series’ themselves often.  The image is therefore one of the diverse bridge crew going about their work together on equal terms.  But the real world time was that of 1968, and so the image was more idyllic than the actual writing of the series, with the characters of color getting only bit parts.

Yet even this image, without any real character development for the marginalized crew members, was a powerful picture and concept in the collective social imagination.  It was powerful enough that when Nichelle Nichols (who played Lt. Uhura) had decided to quit the show in frustration over the very issue of lack of a substantial role, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself told her she needed to stay (Nichols interview).  Even if the part was hardly more than crumbs, seeing a Black 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 as a reminder: this is fiction we are talking about.  As I write this we are only in the 21st century, and the survival of any human beings to the 23rd is hardly guaranteed.  So why was this fictional representation so important?