Thursday, March 29, 2007

Future Imperfect

Alright – GayProf must confess. I know some have conjectured about this and some have taken strong positions in the debate. Rumors have abounded. Now, though, the time has come for me to confirm what some have suspected. Ready?

Yes, I have attended a Star Trek convention in my life. No, I did not wear the ears.

Until I went to that convention (around the age of 12 or so), I thought that I was a Star-Trek fan. I could tell you details from ever episode and I had the technical manual for the Enterprise. Therefore, I thought I would be well acquainted with the other people at the convention.

No way, man. I didn’t even come close. Nobody told me that I should have sewn my own uniform or cast a phaser out of plaster of paris. Star-Trek fans take the show very seriously.

Recently I read a piece on 365Gay about an unofficial Star Trek program that has been gathering a loyal following. Apparently Star-Trek fans have developed their own series, Star Trek: New Voyages, which they film and distribute via the internet. What caught 365Gay’s interest was that fans had adopted a gay-oriented script originally intended for The Next Generation. The new, revised version will have James Kirk’s nephew turn out to be a big homo. One can only hope that we will get a green male go-go dancer at some point in that episode.

Star Trek provided much solace through my exceptionally lonely adolescence. It started when my entire family came down with Chicken Pox all in one go. I got a particularly bad case that invaded every part of my body, including my eyes (Yes, I had pox IN MY EYES). Sleeping proved impossible.

In the middle of the night, therefore, I discovered that the sixties Trek lived on through reruns. Only one incarnation of Star Trek existed at that moment and it centered on Kirk and Spock. The first episode that I saw involved the crew fighting off a doomsday machine that ate planets. Between the phasers and the battle with an insane Starfleet Commodore, I was hooked.

Star Trek always offered a rosy glow to the future. Enterprise operated because of a multi-cultural crew. The first version of Trek created a multi-cultural and egalitarian future. For the 1960s, it appeared almost radical to have Asians, African Americans, and women (of all different backgrounds) in high-ranking positions. As a result, part of the mythology around the series has been centered on its inclusiveness.

So, when Nichelle Nichols came to Albuquerque for a Star Trek convention, I made my parents drop me off for the entire day. She was way cool on the series with the giant beehive hairdo, gold-hoop earrings, a mini mini-skirt, and go-go boots (and I am sure all of that was super practical for working 12-hour shifts on a starship).

Yet, Star Trek’s inclusiveness had its limits. None of the shows addressed two basic constituencies in its audience: the gays and the Latinos.

I have already complained about the lack of Latinos on Star Trek on this blog. Still, when a show implies that Latinos, as a people, don’t exist in the future, it's worth repeating -- many times.

When Next Generation appeared, the pilot episode seemed like it was going to offer a corrective to both of these issues. After all, they had men running around in the mini-skirt and go-go boots that Uhura wore so proudly. Early in the episode, the show also introduced the character Lt. Torres who manned the helm. Finally a Latino character who would fill the void from the first series! Alas, no. Lt. Torres didn’t even survive the first full episode as the mysterious alien “Q” froze him to death.

After the Latinicicle, we had to wait until Voyager before we even came close to other Latino characters. Even then, things remained muddled. While the Chicano actor Robert Beltran played the first-officer, his character was Native American, not Latino. Even there, his character skirted dangerously close to indigenous stereotypes. He also lacked any type of specific tribal affiliation, existing as a cross between Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, Cherokee, and seemingly Mexica (though that probably reflected the interests of the actor). To the creators and producers of Star Trek, Native Americans were both interchangeable (one tribe is the same as the other) and also indistinguishable (How can we possibly know the difference?).

Likewise, a new (female) Lt. Torres appeared. Though this Torres got to live through the whole series, she was also half-Klingon. Indeed, much more time went to exploring her Klingon side than ever mentioning her Latino father (who apparently abandoned the family when she was just a baby).

Queers fared even worse than Latinos. In 1988, Star-Trek creator Gene Rodenberry promised that The Next Generation would include gay characters. This, he believed, went with the spirit and concept of the show. Unfortunately, his health had started to fade. Rick Berman entered the scene as the Executive Producer and quickly quashed any notion of a queer story. None of the following three series included gay characters, either. Kate Mulgrew often lobbied Rick Berman to add a gay character to Voyager, but he always declined.

The half-assed attempt by Next Generation to appease queer audiences came in 1992. They decided to air a very special episode where the Enterprise visits a planet without gender. Riker soon develops a relationship with one the planet's people. He discovers that she has a gendered identity as female. The people on her planet discover her “secret” and she is promptly sent to a “rehabilitation camp.” After she emerges, she claims that she is cured and 100 percent androgynous.

On the surface, that episode kinda hinted at issues surrounding sexuality in this nation. The parallel, in particular, to hiding one’s gender identity and “rehabilitation” would be the most obvious. Yet, it really just enforced heterosexual standards and gender presumptions.

It was only through quasi-monsters (aliens) that the existence of queer people could even be suggested in Star Trek. Even then, those aliens contrasted with the perfectly healthy, all hetero crew of the Enterprise. The mere presence of the aliens threatens to take down the ship and embroil the entire federation in intergalactic war!

The message of the episode further presumes that our social constructions of gender are natural. The romance between Riker and the planet’s citizen is explicitly heterosexual, as she considers herself female. She looks to emulate the other women on Enterprise, such as the doctor and Counselor Troi, as she asks for hair and make-up tips. Star Trek tells us its okay to be gay, as long as you are really straight and adopt a proper gender performance.

Once the ship leaves the planet, Riker never again mentions or thinks about this love affair. Though I think he might have sold the massage table on e-bay. Personally, I always hoped for an episode where we see her take revenge on her “therapists” through some type of bloodbath.

Paramount, the owners of the Star-Trek franchise, have expressed confusion about why their recent movie attempts and series failed. Now they want to make a new movie that focuses on a young Kirk and Spock. Unless that film shows them getting it on, I doubt it will leave much of an impression.

Part of their failure, it seems to me, is that Star Trek stopped being relevant when they stopped focusing on social issues and started focusing on big explosions. If fans of the show can produce a program that is more cutting edge than the studio that holds the license, there is a problem.

Or maybe they just need to use more of the ears. What do I know?


dykewife said...

i always thought that chekov was gay (who knew it was sulu?) as well, despite him getting it on with the blonde security officer once. picard would have made an excellent gay character as well, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

You know, GP, I think the world of your writing. In addition to our mutual love of Karen and all things from the MTM vault, I had a secret, closeted admiration for Star Trek. I recall reading a 60's Mad Magazine mocku-comic episode called Star Drek, that was a had me rolling in laughter. I also confess a secret love of anything Shatner. I'm old enough to recall the original series, and when he took his shirt off, it was a moment of revelation for a 11 year old in 1967. Shaved chests? What's up with that?

However, The Wrath of Khan episode still stands out as a particularly great one, and as a movie it was one of their best. Small consolation, I know, but one that is remembered.

vuboq said...

More ears!

I agree the Star Trek series got less ground-breaking as they progressed, but at least the mens got better looking ;-)

And, isn't that the most important thing?


Anonymous said...

Read the books! Tons of (OK, several) gay characters throughout them, even gay Vulcans!

And not to dispute your main point, but there was Ensign Sonia Gomez in two episodes of TNG as Geordi's assistant in Engineering. She's now a main character in the ongoing Starfleet Corps of Engineers series of stories. And I think that Torres has reconciled with daddy in later Voyager books.

Boy, am I a geek or what!

Doug said...

It is amazing that since George Takei has come out, there isn't a bigger push for a gay character. I have no idea why Star Trek would exclude Latinos.

I like Dykewife's idea of Picard as a gay character. Mix in his role from Jeffrey and he could be our gay superhero in the red sweater.

Dorian said...

I've mentioned this on my site a few times, but after years of daily, close contact with sci-fi and fantasy fans, it's apparent that the vast majority of sci-fi fans have political beliefs ranging from the far-right social conservative to a kind of knee-jerk, unconsidered libertarianism. Even if the producers of Star Trek had the nerve to include a gay character on any incarnation of the show, the fan response would almost certainly be negative. And as Star Trek's fortunes have dwindled, to the point where the only people who even care anymore are the hardest of the hard-core, Trek's producers seem even more determined to keep the hard-core happy, rather than try to get a new audience interested in their property. A tactic which strikes me as incredibly ill-conceived.

I'd suggest you quietly put Star Trek behind you and start watching Doctor Who instead. Not only has the Doctor had a bisexual companion (and a manly kiss with him as well!), that companion was given his own spin-off show.

r said...

Star Trek... I was a wee girl when the original series came out, but I remember clearly watching it on Saturday nights (Hamburger night) with my family.

My mother and brother loved the show; I thought it was kinda boring.

Except the one with the planet entirely populated by kids. When they turned 16 or 18 they got a disease or something and died.

I dreamed of a world where no one told me to pick up my room after that.

GayProf said...

Dykewife: I figured Data was versatile. If he had no emotional investment anyway, why not try it all?

Marlan: Khan does stand out (which brings us back to Ricardo Mantalbán). Still, despite being played by a Mexican actor, Khan was supposed to be South Asian.

Star Trek II is still the benchmark, though I always thought VI was undervalued.

VUBOQ: When it comes to male eye-candy, Star Trek: Enterprise can't be beat! The writing was often crap, but who cared when dreamy Trip took off his shirt?

Michael Rabein: In my adolescence, I did read the books! Of course, that was when there was just one Star Trek. I remember one of them focused on Uhura, that I liked a lot. There was also one where Dr. McCoy took command of the ship that stands out.

Still, the books have two problems. One, my impression was that they were often written by fans (which means that the holders of the license are not really involved). Two, the officials at Star Trek world have declared the books non-canonical. This makes the novels sort of an "alternate-universe" sort of thing.

Doug: Sci-Fi has an anti-Latino bias in general. I think implicit (or explicit) racism presumes that Latinos are not "scientifc."

Dorian: I have never been able to get into Dr. Who. When you had that clip on your blog with the two men kissing, though, I must admit it captured my attention. That was probably one of the best romantic scenes I have seen between two men on television (even if I had no idea what the story meant).

You are right -- I should let Trek go. When you let go of Wildcat, I will stop watching Voyager on Spike.

Rebekah: Oooh, that was the episode with that annoying "bonk-bonk on the head" kid. God, he was annoying.

It's interesting that your mother was partial to the show. Traditionally, her demographic is not well represented in the Trek's audience.

Larry said...

Disturbing... I too attended a Star Trek convention, and I too saw Nichelle Nichols. She must be one of the crew that gets around :)

Explosions aren't to be villanized necessarily. After all, starships and space battles can be pretty riveting, but only in the context of a story. I agree that an explosion for the sake of an explosion is lame.

Speaking of minorities in Star Trek though, did you notice that Voyager and Enterprise both had the exact same characters but with different names? There was "the asian", "the african american", and even the "actor completely covered in latex prosthetics".

What Star Trek needs is to abandon it's format and work with a writing team, not freelancers.

And by the way, the helmsman that dies in the movie First Contact was supposedly gay. But of course they killed him, so what does that tell you.

Frank said...

"Still, the books have two problems. One, my impression was that they were often written by fans (which means that the holders of the license are not really involved). Two, the officials at Star Trek world have declared the books non-canonical. This makes the novels sort of an "alternate-universe" sort of thing."

The books are still being written and, while I suppose most or all the authors are fans, they're not "fanfic" in the stereotypical, pejorative sense. Some are good, some are bad, a few are downright breathtaking.

As to the canon issue, with no series currently and chances of ENT, TNG, DS9, and VOY seeing any screentime any time soon almost nil, the books have risen slightly in their level of canonicity. And the books underwent a bit of a change in format a few years ago; whereas there used to be a new one almost every month, with standalone stories that were indeed "alternate universes," they've now switched to more serial and crossover formats. While Paramount still has de jure rights to sweep all book events away if they do a new series or movie, they have no interest in doing so, apparently, so the books are de facto canon.

"Explosions aren't to be villanized necessarily. After all, starships and space battles can be pretty riveting, but only in the context of a story. I agree that an explosion for the sake of an explosion is lame."

Exactly. I admit that, despite my flaming homosexuality, I have enough testosterone in my body to really get off on explosions and space battles. It's just that one cannot live on explosions and battles ALONE.

"And by the way, the helmsman that dies in the movie First Contact was supposedly gay. But of course they killed him, so what does that tell you."

*sigh* Hawk of the dreamy eyes; in the books, he is confirmed to have indeed been gay and his partner is a recurring character.

I shudder to think, though, GayProf, what you would make of the Intendant on DS9. She'd make your head explode!

Arthur Schenck said...

I always liked Star Trek's sense of a hopeful future, even if it did seem somewhat fascist. And GayProf, in high school I watched original series reruns with my mother, who would have been in her late 50s at the time. Maybe there were more "women of a certain age" watching than anyone knew.

tornwordo said...

Gotta love that Kate Mulgrew. I'm reminded again that I shouldn't watch anything with you, lol. I know I know! The borg could be gay.

Artistic Soul said...

I am a HUGE Star Trek fan, and my experience at the one convention I went to was similar to yours. :) I think you are a right about the social issues vs. special effects. I actually really liked where the Enterprise series was going - but with UPN moving it around into a slew of different time slots, it was hard to get a following for more than four seasons. I actually really miss having some rendition of Star Trek in my weekly TV viewing schedule.

Earl Cootie said...

I never liked the original series (well, except for the one with the planetful of kids - wasn't one of them played by the actor who played Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird?), loved The Next Generation, and have never been able to get involved with any of the others.

I, too, had issues with the androgynous planet episode, namely in that while the inhabitants, though androgynous, were clearly played by both male and female actors (some kind of SAG Kinsey scale?), the one Riker involved himself with was played by a female. I don't think it would even have bothered me much that the character gender-identified as a female. Maybe I just wanted to see Riker make out with a dude?

Anonymous said...

heh... there's at least two Trek (original) related issues in my life - one involving my father and one involving my emerging gayness. Both make me nostalgic (or something) thinking about the original show.

BTW, the most recent New Voyages episode was really pretty good. The SFX were extremely good, but even the acting and "feel" felt kinda solid for an amateur effort. And Takei is gonna be in the next released one - so cool! Thanks for the tip about that, btw!!

Now... as to the rest. Long ago, during TNG, whenever people would say "we need a social commentary episode of TNG!" I would cringe. I figured it would be some forced tripe meaning nothing and not even working as a story.

Then I re-watched some old Trek. And I realized "wow, that's exactly what Roddenberry was doing! In many, many episodes."

There was a recent interview with Nichelle Nichols where she said she confronted Roddenberry with this (paraphased):

"I know what you're doing, Gene! You're writing morality plays in the guise of science fiction." To which he jokingly responded, "Shhhh... don't tell anyone." Though I suppose it wasn't really a joke.

It really is a shame that the art of at least weaving in a real commentary - as part of a larger solid story - pretty much evaporated from Trek and much of Sci Fi. At least until recently.

tomvancouver said...

I've read the Gene Rodenberry had planned to have a regular gay character on the show but he died before it happened.

Anonymous said...

It is sad, especially considering how "Star Trek"'s history shows that progress isn't inevitable. You could easily argue that what happened to "Star Trek" was the fact that, since like most American sci-fi it does have militaristic overtones, it attracted a socially conservative audience (and I definitely agree with Dorian) or that, once it became a franchise and fell more and more out of its creator's hands, the show's producers were much less willing to take risks. But I think a large part of it too was a cultural shift, reacting against the sort of philosophies and representation Gene Roddenbury was pushing for in the original series.

Antonio said...

Hmmm, I never knew Gene Roddenberry planned to incorporate a gay character into TNG. My ultra-conservative, homophobic mother, who swoons over Patrick Stewart even now, probably wouldn't have like the series nearly as much. In fact, I wonder if it would hold the same place in television history.

Anonymous said...

GP- there is another non-canonical fan series called Hidden Frontier. They've had multiple gay characters for a number of seasons now. The tech aspects of the show aren't stellar but are impressive for a group of fans doing this in their spare time.

GayProf said...

Larry: That was dreamy, dreamy Lt. Hawk (who was very dreamy) in First Contact.

Enterprise was also supposed to have a gay character (Malcolm Reed, the weapons officer). They even discussed the idea with the actor. When it came time to film, though, the producers lost their nerve -- again.

Frank: Fortunately for my head, I never watched DS9. It was the only Star Trek series that I have missed.

Arthur: I am not surprised that women of a certain age would find Star Trek appealing. After all, it did show women doing things beyond contemplating how to make a fluffier meringue (which is what most of the other women on t.v. were doing at the time). Still, it is not something that is discussed.

Torn: And keep in mind this is a show that I liked to watch. Just imagine what it is like when I hate a program.

Wiccachicky: I had no problem with Enterprise's concept. When they tried to do the "war on terror," though, it failed horribly. Compare Enterprise to Battlestar Galactica (produced by a former Star Trek producer) and it becomes more obvious.

Earl: The actor who played Riker also wanted it to have been a male actor.

Atari: Oooh, I want to hear the story of how Star Trek relates to your emerging gayness.

Lotus: Yes, he did say that Star Trek would address gay folk. Rick Berman had other ideas, though.

Chad: I am sure that Paramount did many surveys and statistical studies on what Star-Trek audiences wanted. Sometimes, though, what people say they want and what they need are two different things.

Antonio: Oooh, Your mother should watch Jeffery.

Queer Trek: Thanks for the tip.

Artistic Soul said...

I have actually never seen Battlestar Galactica though I've been told on numerous occasions that it's one I should pick up.

Anonymous said...

Star Trek never excluded Latinos. There are only so many characters on the show. TOS included a diverse cast. Far more diverse than any other at the time. Latinos had many guest starring roles. Commodore Mendez anyone? Barbara Luna, who played the "Captain's woman" on the Mirror Universe Enterprise. Many others. We could ask why no Polynesians on Star Trek? Why no Inuits? Why no Norwegians? There were more Mexicans on the show than those three groups combined. As for gays, Lieutenant Hawk??? We don't see him make out with another guy. So? Does it make him less gay that we never see that? Sulu. He's not married.He has an adopted daughter. If he's a reflection of George Takei, then he's gay. Changes nothing about the character. He's my favorite and always will be. Honestly, stop b*tching and enjoy the show for what it is.