Long time readers know that GayProf has been a die-hard trekker since he was GayFifthGrader. While I have never worn the ears, I will confess to having attended a Star Trek Convention shortly before becoming a teenager. My knowledge of the Trek “universe” would likely frighten the uninitiated. I have opinions on things that you don't want to know, like which was the "best" Enterprise.
Producers of the new Trek worked hard to lower expectations from die-hard fans before this film’s release. They noted it would be impossible to retain continuity with the original series and therefore weren’t going to bother. Instead, the film offers an “alternate time line” approach. All the adventures chronicled on the sixties television show, according to this
To make a long story short, a really pissed off Romulan mucked up the time line after an elderly Spock failed to prevent a super nova from destroying Romulus in the future. Of course, now that young Spock knows what will happen one hundred years in the future, he could work to prevent the destruction of Romulus in his old age. If successful, then the pissed off Romulan would not need to travel back in time and muck up the time line. This would then create a temporal paradox, but possibly erase the new time line and restore the first time line chronicled in the sixties t.v. show. Confused? Believe it or not, that’s considered a boilerplate narrative for the franchise.
Let’s be clear: I actually liked the new movie. While the actor playing Spock lacks Leonard Nimoy’s commanding voice (or presence), all the other actors filled the roles quite well. Watching Karl Urban mimic Deforest Kelley even bordered on the eery at times. Besides, after all of the disasters that were the Next Generation films, it was refreshing to see a Trek movie that wasn’t a total embarrassment. And yet. . .
You don’t keep coming back to CoG for sunshine and lollipops. Even though I like something, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be better. Or that I don't have a rambling blog post about it. I am inclined to criticize something I like even more than something that was simply “okay.” Just imagine what type of parent that I would be!
The biggest problem with the “updated” Trek is that it’s not very updated at all. Because Trek has become such a part of the nation’s cultural landscape, we tend to take for granted the many revolutionary innovations it ushered in when it premiered in 1967. Even in the midst of the Cold War, the Star Trek universe (occasionally) promised an end to capitalism and explicitly rejected the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of one’s social worth. It also presented a future peace for earth and an end to national borders. In the middle of the various civil rights movements in the U.S., the show offered an egalitarian future where racism was solved. The show even pledged an end to sexism – Well, sort of.
Despite the show’s credentials, its utopian ideals were obviously always filtered through the social lens of the era it was filmed. Limitations that could be partially justified in the late sixties no longer seem as dismissible in 2009.
As I have complained about in another post, Latinos only appeared as ancillary figures in the Star Trek universe. Aside from attending the convention, I will also confess to having written my own Trek fiction while in middle school. Though I haven’t thought about it in years (and those pages are thankfully lost forever), I do remember feeling the absence of Latino characters so strongly in the Original Series that I created a Latina captain in my fictional accounts. In those stories, she communicated to her crew entirely in Spanish. Given that I wasn’t actually raised in a bilingual household, it was an interesting choice on my part (and I can’t imagine what the Spanish-text even looked like. It’s funny what we internalize, isn’t it?).
Latinos aren't the only group that apparently doesn't exist in the 23rd Century. Producers of Star Trek also explicitly rejected adding any openly gay characters.
Hmm – Limited spots for Latinos and no openly gay people? The bridge of the Enterprise looks a lot like the Obama administration.
I won’t bore you with those complaints – again. This time, I want to talk more about gender in the Trek universe.
When Gene Roddenberry first filmed a pilot for the show, he did have a revolutionary idea for 1967: The second in command of the Enterprise would be a woman (known only as “Number One”). This first version of the show had Captain Christopher Pike commanding the famed ship along with the "logical" Number One as First Officer. That first episode showed Number One making life and death decisions and playing with really big guns. Alas, the network executives didn’t like the notion that an uppity woman would take over command of the ship whenever Captain Pike was in peril (They were even less pleased that Roddenberry was having an affair with Majel Barett, the actor who played “Number One”).
Thus, after a complete rewrite, Roddenberry’s ambitions for women on the show had been significantly altered. Kirk appeared as Captain and women were demoted to “more traditional roles,” such as yeomen or nurses. Instead of taking over command and making decisions for the crew, women on-board the Enterprise took the Captain’s messages and made him coffee. Majel Barett, no longer First Officer, assumed a role as Nurse Chapel who spent her days mooning over Spock and handing out aspirin.
Significantly, the show also “sexed up” the women’s uniforms. In place of Number One’s sensible turtle neck and slacks in the first pilot, women officers squeezed into ultra-mini skirts, go-go boots, and beehive hairdos. All of that, I am sure, was real practical for working in space.
Still, even with all those deletions, the show did push for an inclusive universe rarely seen on television to that point. The characters of Uhura and Sulu allowed actors-of-color to play characters that (mostly) avoided racial stereotypes. Most other representations of Asian men on television presented them as either meek flower gardeners or as treacherous (but easily defeated) villains. Lt. Sulu, in contrast, figured as an equally valued crew member.
Comparably, Nichelle Nichols portrayed Lt. Uhura, the most prominent woman on the original series (FYI: Nichols was the keynote speaker at that convention I attended – I got to ride in an elevator with her!). Uhura broke sixties-era boundaries by being a Black-woman bridge officer. Her character offered a much needed corrective to the usual assortment of maids that most African-American women had to play in sixties film and television. For once, a Black woman on television appeared to have more on her mind that scrubbing toilets, making pancakes, or ensuring that the house had a fresh pine scent.
Of course, Uhura’s role as a commanding officer was still heavily proscribed. Instead, her assignment was more-or-less presented as one of a space-receptionist who staffed an intergalactic switchboard. Uhura had little to say beyond “Hailing frequencies open.” Nichelle Nichols found the role boring and contemplated quitting the series after the first season. None other than Martin Luther King, Jr. intervened in that decision. King, who claimed to be a fan of the show, convinced Nichols to stay on board despite her limited role. He argued (apparently convincingly) that her mere presence on the bridge made an important statement about racial politics in the U.S.
Nichols stuck it out through the rest of the show, an animated series, and six films. Through it all, she always advocated for a more elaborate role for Uhura. In particular, she hoped for an opportunity for Uhura to take command of the ship (which she did in one episode of the Saturday-morning cartoon (but only after all the men on board became slaves to an all-woman planet who sought to drain them of their essence (don’t ask)).
The relaunch of the series therefore presented some significant problems to reforming a pretty dated character. Out of the eight main characters on the original series, Uhura was the only woman and one-of-two characters of color (Not even having a Mexican-born producer was apparently enough to add a Latino character to the latest film). Sadly, I have a fairly harsh assessment of Uhura’s new incarnation.
The new Uhura was given a bit more in the way of professional credentials. Rather than being somebody whose greatest accomplishment was mastering the use of a hold button, Uhura is now a skilled linguist. In the opening scenes with her, she also shows significant promise. Uhura deftly ignores the boorish Kirk, his clumsy passes, and a crude joke about blow jobs. It seemed possible that Uhura would be a significant equal of the Enterprise bridge crew. Then things kinda go off track.
Returning to the sixties model, Uhura mostly kept out of the way of the men on board, who clearly had important things to do. Her skills as a linguist were rendered moot as the Romulans jammed all the communications anyway. The difference between Uhura and one of the blinking bridge consoles thereby became minimal. She contented herself by looking pretty and flipping her long, straight hair as often as possible. While each of the men had some profound action sequence, Uhura’s major duty in life focuses on cheering Spock up. She does that task mostly by making out with him.
The implicit premise behind the egalitarian diversity of the original series was that each of the crew members was professionally respected as the best at their particular job. The new film inverted that professionalism by having Uhura be the only crewmember who has an affair with her instructor and her commanding officer, Spock. Apparently Starfleet forgot to write rules and regulations about sexual misconduct among officers (If Trek producers really wanted to push the envelope, they could have had cadet Kirk having an affair with his instructor and commanding officer, Captain Pike!).
The producers' clumsy decisions forever clouds Uhura’s representation of a professional Black woman. I am willing to not tred into the obvious stereotype of women-of-color’s bodies being always available for white men. Nonetheless, Uhura’s success on the Enterprise becomes irrevocably linked to her affair with Spock.
Indeed, the character of Spock even acknowledges this potential when Uhura complains that she was not assigned to Starfleet’s perpetual flagship, the Enterprise. It is her romantic relationship with Spock that initially sends her to another commanding officer to avoid the appearance of “favoritism,” but it is that same romantic relationship that allows her to insist that Spock return her to his command. Uhura becomes a bizarre combination of Spock’s available lover and space-mammy all rolled into one ultra-mini skirt (Which, along with knee-high boots, reappeared on the women in this Star Trek).
I don’t object to either Uhura or Spock having romantic relationships per se. Indeed, the original series suggested that Spock did have romantic entanglements while a young officer. The problem with this incarnation, though, is that Uhura becomes defined only by her relationship to Spock. In contrast, Spock’s relationship to Uhura is one of many elements of his history and character that we get to see on film. Lots of celluloid is spent charting Spock’s goals, childhood experiences, relationships with the other crew, and even his old-age shenanigans. Uhura’s needs or ambitions, meanwhile, are never explored. We are even unsure whether she wanted to be on board the Enterprise for the sake of her career or just so that she could whisper sweet nothings into Spock’s pointed ears.
Add onto that the fact that the only other woman in the film with any significance is Spock’s mother and we start to see some serious (and Freudian) problems here. After forty years, one would have hoped that Star Trek would allow more roles for women than as the mothers or lovers of the male leads. Turns out, not so much.
According to some reports, Paramount executives understood that Star Trek (and science fiction in general) has had a poor record for attracting adult women as audience members. They therefore charged the current Trek producers to solve that problem. How did they tackle this issue? Astoundingly they suggested their solution came from consulting their wives about what women wanted in a film. Yeah, ‘cuz asking your spouse over morning bagels is just as good as, you know, hiring a professional woman onto the writing/producing team. Wow, they really did master time travel and returned us all to 1967!
The new Trek makes it clear that the job of saving the universe rests exclusively with men, preferably white men. Indeed, Starfleet values white, male leadership so much that Kirk gets to skip up the ranks from Academy Cadet to Captain of his own Starship all in one go! Let me tell you, if I was on the Enterprise and had actually earned the rank of Ensign, Lieutenant, Lieutenant-Commander, or Commander, I would push for a mutiny against the woefully unqualified “Captain” Kirk.
Unlike 1967, it is no longer revolutionary to just acknowledge the presence of people-of-color or women. They can’t be the tokens who promise future inclusion, but then step aside when the “real” decisions need to be made. This new Star Trek only sneaked around questions of gender and racial equality. In the end, it is still a “boy’s” franchise that no longer wants to think about contemporary problems of racism and sexism.