‘Star Trek’ and progressive representation in television

EMERSON SLOMKA, Opinion Columnist

“’Star Trek’ was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.” — Gene Roddenberry

Few works of fiction have the power to challenge our notion of normalcy and inspire progress as much as “Star Trek” has. Since its original run beginning in 1966, “Star Trek” and its various iterations have presented an idealistic and optimistic view of what the future could be like, from space travel to social equality. Gene Roddenberry envisioned a future in which humans had progressed beyond the confines of their bigotry and fear of change to explore the galaxy as a united race. Roddenberry was no stranger to controversy —  in fact, he seemed to welcome it and the way that it forced a dialogue about what he considered important. For example, Lieutenant Commander Nyota Uhura (portrayed by Nichelle Nichols) is considered to be one of the first black women on TV portrayed in a position of power; famously, Whoopi Goldberg, who would go on to portray Guinan on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” proclaimed upon seeing Uhura, “I just saw a black woman on television, and she ain’t no maid!” “Star Trek’s” embrace of social progress did not end there, however; in fact, “Star Trek” has arguably paved the way for queer representation in television, using its science-fiction platform to tackle real-world issues such as homophobia and transphobia.

The boldest example of LGBTQ themes in “Star Trek” can be traced back to the 1992 episode “The Outcast.” In this episode, we are introduced to the character Soren, a member of an androgynous race who consider both gender and sexuality unacceptable and taboo. Soren, being unfamiliar with the concept of gender, is fascinated by the crew of the Enterprise, and begins to experience a romantic attraction to Commander Riker. Soren admits to Riker that she identifies as a female, but cannot openly express her identity or her species will force her to undergo conversion therapy in order to reform her into a genderless individual. This is an obvious allegory for the questionable conversion therapy found in our own society, used to “reform” LGBTQ individuals (a practice that is thankfully becoming illegal in many states). Soren and Riker’s relationship is discovered, as well as Soren’s female identity, and she is placed on trial, eventually being forced into conversion therapy. This therapy proves to be “successful,” convincing Soren that she is asexual and genderless — while this episode certainly has a bleak ending (one that was criticized by many LGBTQ viewers), this was done intentionally in order to make a statement about the cruel nature of conversion therapy and how it can be seen as brainwashing rather than a true form of therapy.

While this episode makes a bold statement about gender and sexuality, Jonathan Frakes, the actor who portrays Commander Riker, felt that it didn’t go far enough; he insisted that Soren be played by a male actor in order to solidify that she was a transgender character, but this was quickly rejected by the studio, who felt that a relationship between two biologically male characters was too risky (the studio rejecting progressive concepts and ideas will become a recurring theme throughout this analysis), reportedly leaving Frakes enraged.

The first same-sex kiss in “Star Trek” came from “Deep Space Nine,” the series released after “The Next Generation.” The character Jadzia Dax is a Trill, a race of aliens that are often conjoined with symbiote who are passed through Trill, taking the previous hosts’ memories and identities with them. Jadzia is a new recipient of a symbiote, with the prior host having been a man. Thus, Jadzia feels as though she once was a man (supported by characters such as Commander Sisko who knew her previous host). In the 1995 episode “Rejoined,” Jadzia encounters Lenara Khan, the wife of Dax’s previous host. Still feeling the previous host’s attraction and love for Khan, the two kiss — a scene that would become one of “Star Trek’s” most controversial. Many stations either edited the scene out or refused to air the episode whatsoever, as Paramount staff reportedly had to work back-to-back shifts just to deal with the volume of complaints. One such call was answered by a production assistant who, in response to hearing the caller complain about the scene “ruining his kids by making them watch two women kiss like that,” responded by asking if he would have been okay with seeing one of the women shoot the other with a phaser, and the man answered that he would have been unbothered. The PA then responded, “maybe you should reconsider who’s ruining your kids.” 

While these examples were by far the most notable and controversial, “Star Trek’s” queer representation hasn’t faltered. “Star Trek: Discovery” includes Lt. Paul Stamets and Dr. Hugh Culber, a married gay couple, and J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek Beyond portrays Hikaru Sulu (a character who was originally played by gay actor George Takei), as having a husband. “Star Trek” portrays humanity free of bigotry and discrimination, and has been unafraid to challenge modern inequality and injustices, painting a hopeful future for us to strive towards.