Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Star Trek is Not Fifty Years of Progressive Lip-Service

The original series pilot, when
Majel Barret outranked Leonard Nimoy on the ship. 
There are times when I need to calm down before writing a piece. Usually, as on this occasion, it is when I am annoyed by pseudo-analytical thinkers who write pieces that "reveal"the truth behind what all we ignorant ciphers thought was the case.

These pieces are usually written in a matter-of-fact-tone of someone who has assigned him or herself (just by virtue of accidental superiority -- hey, it is what it is...) to be the mentor of everyone else. It sounds a lot like someone saying, "I'm sorry you were too dim to see this, but, take your medicine now, little fella." The pieces these people write are always focused on how "thing X" looks like this, but it is really this (if you are sharp enough to see it).

It takes a shape like this: "Oh, sure, I know this TV show is called 'Ladies of Power and Dignity,' and I know thew whole cast is women who play CEOs of big companies, including 50% women of color, but that is all a front. The show is produced by 88% white males... This is unacceptable and it points out the hypocrisy of..."

In other words, one group of the world's demographics -- granted, in this case, the one that has done the most damage -- cannot, with any validity or efficacy, do something good for another. This presents something of a conundrum for positive change and harmony, don't you think?

It's no secret I am a lifelong Star Trek fan. Recently, Patrick Stewart announced that he will be playing Jean-Luc Picard once again. This is a delight to fans of the show -- but perhaps a nefarious  delight, according to blogger Ani Bundel.

See, Bundel, with the superior lenses of the social Virgil to our wandering Dantes, sees this as a troubling "retreat from the progressivism of [the current show] Star Trek: Discovery." And why is this all being done? Why is the beloved character being brought back? For Bundel, it is "to placate the white male demographic that felt alienated by [CBS's] first Trekkie reboot...a show which was legitimately diverse and, therefore, immediately controversial.

...because, the Star Trek franchise has not done well enough, apparently. It has "payed lip-service" to progressivism and liberalism for fifty years, according to Bundel. And now, oafish white men -- who apparently have seen no shade of this progressive thinking up to last year...Star Trek, the original series, having done things like using a multi-ethnic cast; having shown the first interracial kiss on television [no, that one with Nancy Sinatra kissing Sammy Davis Junior didn't count -- she was just saying hi]; having gone out of its way to cast minority actors in positions of power and genius; having created, in Uhura, the first African American woman of real position in a network TV show [Dr. Martin Luther King even recognized this, encouraging Nichelle Nichols to stay on the show when she wanted to leave] -- now, I say, we lumpen of scrape-knuckled white guys can't handle that there is a gay couple or an African American female lead on Star Trek: Discovery. This, according to Bundel, is why we need Captain Picard back...

We just need to see "and aging white male known for his equilibrium and widsom" or we won't be able to stick with Star Trek. Somehow, miraculously, we have been fooled into sticking with the other five series -- somehow smoke-screened to the things we would not otherwise have been able to handle, like, oh...Captain Janeway. [How did the white males miss that she is a woman? Surely they would have tuned out...] What about Avery Brooks? He was just actually a dark-skinned white guy, right? And thank God we fragile, mouth-breathing, establishment drones completely missed that Star Trek TNG episode, in 1992, called "The Outcast" that dealt with gender identity issues... twenty-six years ago (obviously during the "lip-service" period). Surely we would have jumped ship if we had seen that. I once heard a rumor, too, that the brilliant engineer, Geordie LaForge [LaVar Burton], on the Enterprise in TNG, had once played Kunta Kinte in Roots. Nonsense...that would have required a black man. And who was that dude who played the doctor on TNG? He sure was lovely.

TNG, 1992
Should I go on? Because I really can, in deeply nerdly proportions. Gene Roddenberry founded Star Trek as a progressive, positive view of the future. Yes, he was ham-stringed by lots of network limitations that he had to cave-in to if he wanted to see the show produced. (Ever see how different the pilot episode was to the series that followed? The women wore pants just like the men and Majel Barret -- who was to become Nurse Chapel -- was originally the Enterprise's first officer.) His vision was way beyond that of the network, but it was either compromise or never bring his show to the light.

But Bundel peels back the curtain! Even though, for example, Star Trek TNG was a liberally-themed show, the cast, she says, was 75% white and male. And the production team was 100% white male. And male. Here I agree with her. If those white guys had known what was good for the world, they ought to have have fired themselves and hired other people -- of the right gender and colors -- to do their well-intentioned work! Because, after all, progressive views spoken from the mouth of a white man in defense of his minority brother and sisters are just not good enough; in fact, they might even be insidious. And we all know that percentages tell all tales. If 100% of the people who stand between a racist, white cop with a gun and a black man in danger are white just ain't the same. (I know, I'm being silly. I...)

I don't know. Maybe the position should be: We need more women and minorities in production, but let's give credit to some good-hearted white guys for making statements of equality; to Roddenberry for starting TV in the right direction. That's not good enough, though. It's more click-baity to say: "HOLD EVERYTHING. WHAT YOU BELIEVED IS WRONG! IN THE NAME OF MONEY, CBS IS DOING A U-TURN INTO SAFETY!"

I am watching Star Trek: Discovery, now. I'm about halfway through it. I like it. I'm not sure how, with my limited and privileged perception of the world, I pulled it off...but I like it. I know, as a fifty-year-old, straight white guy, I should not be capable of this, but God help me, I like it.

Deep Space Nine, 1993-1999
I didn't like the first few episodes because of the Shenzhou captain. Not because she was a woman, but because I think she is a God-awful actress who was a black hole that swallowed even Martin-Green's impressive charisma. When Jason Isaacs made his appearance, the show was transformed for me. Not because he is a white guy and I was comforted by this, but because he is a great actor. I have really liked Sonequa Martin-Green since The Walking Dead (before it turned into a sadism fest and I stopped watching) and I think she is doing a great job on Star Trek: Discovery...because she is a great screen presence and a very good actor.  

Bringing back Jean Luc Picard is not a "u-turn" from the progressive casting of ...Discovery. It's giving the gift of a great artist (in Stewart) and a beloved character back to Star Trek fans. It's disturbing to me when a writer implies that casting a white man as captain is a step back. Why must we always think in pendulum-swings? Is it not okay to simultaneously run a show like ...Discovery along-side one with a beloved character, even if he is a white male? Calling it a "u-turn" is saying that white men are no longer viable subjects for fiction or that they cannot contribute to a progressive view of the future. (In fairness, Bundel does express her hopes that Stewart, whom she admires, will make the right choices in that regard.) 

I will admit that when I watched Star Trek: Enterprise, I was a bit relieved to see that the casting people seemed not to be trying as hard to cast for diversity. Not because I don't want to see diversity on Star Trek, but because it felt like Star Trek had blazed the trail well enough that the pressure was off; that maybe they felt it was okay to just pick the best actors for the roles they had at that time; that maybe we could all start to accept each other without it being a chess game of social strategy every time we create a new show. (Though, the cast still showed diversity, it also may have been in the producers' minds that it was earlier along the path of Starfleet, and maybe the diversity hadn't happened to the same extent as on later ships...which would have been, God forbid, a creative decision made outside the bounds of social pressure.) 
Captains Sisko and Janeway 
Either way, I would like to proudly announce that I've stuck with Star Trek: Discovery, even after the horrors of witnessing [gasp!] displays of affection between two gay men. I must be some kind of anomaly in the white, straight, male world. Nay! A Christ-figure! You know what? I even managed (it has to be a scheme of some kind on my part that someone needs to make me aware of) to get emotional when one of those guys met his demise. Somehow...I had come to really like him...even though was gay. OH, CAPTAIN PICARD. PLEASE SAVE ME WITH YOUR COMFORTING WHITE, STRAIGHTNESS!!! (Sorry...I lost control.)

Let's not ruin Gene Roddenberry's legacy. Star Trek has been and remains a bastion of progressive thinking in popular culture. I welcome back Jean-Luc Picard even as I root for Michael Burnham, because I grew up watching a projected future in which everyone on Earth is at peace. Yeah, the fiction was limited at times by narrow-mindedness of contemporary reality (which can be explained so much better than Bundel's narrow piece does it), but the heart was always there. And it always was (and is) way more than "lip-service." If I wrote for page-views over saying what I really believe, I might change my tune. But as it stands...

So, "nice try" to Ms. Bundel. Just because some racist and sexist jerks reacted negatively to ...Discovery, it does not mean that white, male fans need a pacifier -- the ones who ran away never understood what Star Trek was about from the beginning. But, neither does she. 

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